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Haas Venture Aims To Disrupt Travel Industry

Pictured left to right are Garib Mehdiyev, CTO, Johannes Koeppel, CEO, and Zaky Prabowo, CMO, of Wetravel.to. Photo by Thor Swift for the Financial Times

Pictured left to right are Garib Mehdiyev, CTO, Johannes Koeppel, CEO, and Zaky Prabowo, CMO, of Wetravel.to.
Photo by ©2015 Thor Swift Photography (thorswiftphotography.com)

In this age of techies and entrepreneurs hellbent on disrupting everything in their path, very few industries and lifestyles have gone unscathed. We swipe left or right when searching for a suitable mate. We pay strangers to drive us to work in their personal cars. We vacation in random people’s homes. We refinance our student loans while divulging nearly everything about ourselves from our monthly bank statements to the first time we bought candy from a 7-Eleven.

And now at the epicenter of disruptive ventures, in a rooftop office full of snacks close to the Montgomery BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station in San Francisco, there’s WeTravel, the company keen on having an Uber-effect on the travel industry.

WeTravel was founded by California-Berkeley Haas School of Business MBAs, Johannes Koeppel and Zaky Prabowo, and crack tech director, Garib Mehdiyev, who was the chief technology officer of the largest bank in his native Azerbaijan by age 22. Between the three, they can speak a combined 15 languages and have collectively traveled to more than 100 countries. On a phone conversation, excitement pours through Koeppel, and Prabowo’s, words—often speaking over one another to fully explain their passion and platform. At one point, Prabowo even asks to have his personal email published so he can “personally help anyone” who wants to use the platform, before kindly retracting the request after he realized the implications of his notion.

AN UNLIKELY PRE-MBA JOURNEY

How they both ended up at Berkeley-Haas was slightly unlikely and very unique. Swiss-born Koeppel, 33, spent the majority of his professional career as an aid worker and arrived on the northern California campus armed with the idea and rearing to use the two-year program as a way to incubate his venture. After earning his first masters in Switzerland, he went right to work as a health economist for Doctors Without Borders in Swaziland. He then held prestigious positions for the International Committee of the Red Cross, an organization that provides assistance and protection for victims of war and humanitarian crimes. His time with the ICRC culminated with Koeppel running an entire office for the country of Tajikistan, near the Afghan border.

The majority of Koeppel’s career was spent traveling. He is a serial-traveler, saying traveling is the main reason he has ever wanted a job or money. He also liked to share travel with others. So he started occasionally organizing trips for friends and family and then for tourists. But organizing trips for large groups of people in different countries is not logistically easy.

While traveling in India, he met someone with a similar passion and familiar struggle. “He was struggling as well with marketing, coordinating people, with collecting the money, and making the business seem legitimate,” Koeppel insists. “Then it dawned on me that group tours will not stay the same as they are now in the next five or 10 years.”

‘I WASN’T ONE OF THOSE GUYS WHO HIRED AN ADMISSIONS CONSULTANT’

Koeppel cites technology and the shared economy as indicators of a changing market. So he had the idea around the same time that he was realizing his current position might not be the safest moving forward in his life.

“I wasn’t one of the guys who hired an admissions consultant or did a whole bunch of research on all the schools,” Koeppel explains. “I literally sat down at the table with my wife and we picked four places we could imagine living in. And the Bay Area was number one.”

New York City was another option so Koeppel gave Columbia Business School a glance, but when it came down to deciding, proximity to tech-rich Silicon Valley gave Berkeley’s Haas School the edge. He entered the program with tunnel vision on starting his travel venture. And viewed the MBA as a “door-opener into the private sector.”

“The MBA was a way for me to redirect my career into new adventures—especially entrepreneurship,” he adds.

A MCKINSEY-ITE DITCHES THE FIRM FOR GOVERNMENT WORK

Prabowo, 30, on the other hand, had a slightly more stereotypical pre-MBA path. Indonesian-born, Prabowo oozes pride for his country. His father was a rocket scientist for the Indonesian Air Force and instilled on his son the importance of giving back to his country.

A proud product of a public school education, Prabowo was the seventh Indonesian-educated person to join McKinsey & Co.. He worked his way up and rapidly became one of the best business analysts in McKinsey’s Jakarta-based office. After three years, McKinsey was even willing to pay for his MBA.

But then the dream beckoned in the form of an opening with a small team setup by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to monitor performance of the various ministries of the country. “I decided I needed to quit now, jump ship, and serve my country,” Prabowo says.

So Prabowo applied and received the position. And he was immediately attracted to the difference in working directly for an organization compared to giving advice to clients through consulting. “Instead of serving multiple countries around Southeast Asia, I was able to just serve my own,” he says.

Still, the B-school bug festered and one project in particular led Prabowo to Haas. While on a project to improve agroforestry efforts in Indonesia, he initiated and established a partnership between the Google Earth Engine and the government of Indonesia and built a satellite-based forest monitoring system.

“We set up this system using Google technology to monitor forest degradation in Indonesia,” he recalls. “That’s when I realized how impactful technology can be to changes in society and that is when I decided, alright, this is the time to go to business school.”

Coincidently, Prabowo also had a knack for organizing large groups of people. He created Indorelawan, which was Indonesia’s first volunteer matching platform and is currently the largest. “That’s how I fell in love with marketplace technology and how I can connect people and make greater impact,” he says. The platform now connects 150 to 200 organizations with about 5,000 volunteers every month.